Shuttlecock Themes
by Graham Swift

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

One of the primary concerns of Shuttlecock is the nature of truth seen in the relation between truth and information. Do the discovered facts of his father’s buried past add up to a positive gain for Prentis about the “truth” of that past? Not really, since he (as well as the reader) never knows if the facts have been interpreted correctly—the questionably verifying file is burned, unseen by Prentis. Yet, almost as if accepting that the severance between information and truth were a prerequisite, Prentis’ inability or unwillingness to discover the true nature of the past is followed by a gaining of power and control over the conveyance of information. In the bureaucratic environment of Shuttlecock, the desire for information becomes obsessive; even in its fragmentary forms, it is the ultimate signifier of a “reality” where the personal and the familial are either buried or accessible only through the mastery of information.

Graham Swift suggests, through the imagery of the novel, that a world structured along these lines is sterile and denatured. The parks and commons described in Shuttlecock appear as ironic oases in a desert of paper, files, facts, and bureaucratic conspiracies. The asylum where Prentis, Sr., lives is placed in a pastoral setting, and the woods to which he “escapes” from the POW camp provide a kind of natural refuge to the fleeing man who has been reduced to a beast by torture and intimidation; in all these instances, however, nature, as such, becomes a reflection of an impoverished human nature. Like the past, nature seems to be a repository which has been relinquished or repressed in favor of an access to the power and superficiality of bureaucratic life. Even when Prentis and his wife make love in the dunes of a nearly deserted beach at the close of the novel, “nature” is portrayed in the form of a cliche, a Hollywood backdrop against which Prentis’ successful entrance into adulthood and authority is played out. In Shuttlecock, Swift presents an ironic, somewhat cynical view of modern life as bereft of depth and feeling but filled with an insatiable desire for the “knowledge” that paper chases bring about.